Welcome to a weekly classic movies column here on Nerdist.com. Each week focuses on a different film available on streaming. Sit back, grab some snacks, and expand your film knowledge with old Hollywood cinema.
Zombies as we know them now, the deceased who walk the earth and feast on human flesh, are a fairly recent development in cinema. In the early 1930s and 40s, the term “zombie” had an entirely different meaning. Films such as the 1932 classic I Walked With a Zombie portrayed corpses brought back to life as the result of witch doctors or voodoo. Early zombies were brainless slaves who did the bidding of their masters. By the late-50s, the genre “zombie” movie was thought to be dead for good.
The genre was revived in the 60s thanks to three Pittsburgh area filmmakers: George Romero, John Russo, and Russell Streiner. The trio had mostly been producing and directing commercials in the area, but wanted to make a horror film for their big-screen debut. Why horror? “George and I happened to be watching some particularly poorly-made horror films on the NBC affiliate in Pittsburgh,” Streiner remarked in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. “And we said, ‘Look, some TV station paid money for that thing. If we can’t do something that’s at least equal to that, we’d better hang it up and stick to making TV commercials!’”
Romero and Russo co-wrote a script which they have admitted was taken heavily from Richard Matheson’s famous novella, I Am Legend. In the story, a plague spreads across and subsequently demolishes Los Angeles. Russo expanded upon the idea of the vampire-like beings in the short that fed upon the uninfected – in this horror film only, the recently dead could come back to life. The script for the movie, now titled Night of the Living Dead, was written in three days and given a small budget of $114,000 to make the horror flick.
Night of the Living Dead chronicles two characters, Ben (played by Duane Jones) and Barbara (portrayed by Judith O’Dea), who find themselves trapped in a farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania while the dead come to life and seek the flesh of the living. Regarded as the first modern zombie movie, the film set the standard for horror movies from that point forward. Not only did it single-handedly bring the zombie genre back to cinema, it became one of the most popular types of horror movies. There would be no Shaun of the Dead, The Walking Dead, or World War Z without Night of the Living Dead.
The film is also groundbreaking for its casting of lead character Ben. At the time, Duane Jones was a relatively unknown actor to movie-going audiences. Even though the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had been passed four years prior, tensions over race were still high in much of America. Casting an African-American man as the hero of the film when the rest of the cast was made up of white actors was almost unheard of. Romero has said Jones simply gave the best audition out of all the actors and so naturally he got the job. Nevertheless, Night of the Living Dead marked the first horror film that featured an African-American man as the lead. The movie showed Ben as a smart, resourceful, serene man – breaking the too common practice of black actors appearing as crude stereotypes on screen.
Additionally, because of the casting of Duane Jones, the movie is influential as a horror movie that doubles as social commentary. SPOILER ALERT! When Jones’ character meets his fateful end after being mistaken as a zombie by the all-white mob that shows up to the farm house, it’s a blistering condemnation of the social class. Civil rights legislation may have been passed, but there was still a large divide based on race in America. Night of the Living Dead used horror as a metaphor for the unjust discrimination a large population of people were still facing daily across the country. Today, horror is frequently the genre of choice for filmmakers looking to make a movie with a social or political message. Films such as Audition, Videodrome, They Live, and Frankenstein all use horror as a metaphor for social unrest.
When the film was released in 1968, the magazine Reader’s Digest warned people to stay away from the film because they worried it would encourage cannibalism.
Chocolate syrup was used to resemble blood in the movie.
At the time of Night of the Living Dead‘s release in 1968, any work that did not include a copyright notice was considered to be in the public domain. The filmmakers forgot to include this, and the film slipped into the public domain. It wasn’t until March 1, 1989 that a copyright was not required anymore.
The movie was selected by the Library of Congress in 1999 for inclusion in the National Film Registry for being deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
What’s your favorite zombie movie? What other classic movies would you like to see in a future column? Drop us your thoughts in the comments below!
Michelle Buchman is the social media manager at Nerdist Industries. She’s also a huge cinephile. Feel free to follow and chat movies with her on Twitter, @michelledeidre.